Wicked identity politics come with the territory in Boston. The city exists because an exclusionary mood took hold of a group of Englishmen four centuries ago, and ever since Bostonians have been marking those they deem to truly belong here and those who don’t. But even by the standards of a city obsessed with the struggle against perceived outsiders, the bout of class and identity politics that’s been convulsing Jamaica Plain in recent years is an epic one.
The same impulses that had residents howling at the prospect of a Whole Foods Market opening in the neighborhood have been driving a spate of recent opposition to housing development projects. A vocal segment of the neighborhood has fought the new housing, decrying the high rents the housing complexes would attract. Of course, the rents have never been the real enemy.
Jamaica Plain’s housing opponents have been fighting gentrification, even though wars on gentrification don’t actually stop it; they just drive up prices and make it harder for established residents to stick around. So with two large neighborhood housing battles recently swinging against housing opponents, the neighborhood has a rare chance to call a truce in its local identity wars. It’s better off trying to harness the forces of supply and demand, rather than pretending these forces don’t exist.
Jamaica Plain residents have long been strong advocates for the creation of affordable housing. But a vocal faction has taken this stance to the extreme and essentially declared that it won’t accept any new market-rate housing. In this view, unless a housing development is publicly subsidized, it can’t get built.
This subsidized-or-nothing tack first came for the shuttered Home for Little Wanderers headquarters on South Huntington Avenue, where the Boston Residential Group is trying to construct 196 new apartments. Residents complained about high rents, with one telling the neighborhood paper that it would become a beacon for “transient rich people.” After failing to win alterations to the project’s size, scope, and developer-funded affordable housing component, a neighborhood civic group challenged the project’s permits in court. The suit failed because the civic group couldn’t show how the housing project caused it harm, but the delay from the court fight was as costly as it was unnecessary.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority just awarded development permits to a project up the street that attracted similar objections. The tower Anthony Nader wants to build across from the E Line’s terminus clocks in at 195 apartments spread over 13 stories, but the project’s opponents were far less worried about the building’s size than they were about its price point. The chief complaint was that the rents in the luxury project would spread to the surrounding neighborhood, like some sort of infectious disease.
The neighborhood fight over market-rate rents now shifts down the street. Goddard House, a historic former nursing home complex near the old Little Wanderers site, is on the market and is expected to sell to a housing developer. In nearby Hyde Square, residents have held up the planned redevelopment of the former Blessed Sacrament church. Opponents are refusing to allow a neighborhood community development corporation to build 37 condominiums next to 81 affordable units the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation has already built at the church; they’d rather stick the nonprofit builder with a loss and have no more housing built at the site, than see anything more than a handful of market-rate units built. These housing developments offer opponents chances to run the same tired play of fighting off perceived waves of gentrifying outsiders. But they also offer opponents the chance to relent, to give up on the identity wars, and to recast the way their neighborhood, and others like it, manages development.
One can’t say it often enough: Housing is a math equation. When too many people chase too few homes, the prices of those homes will skyrocket. Absent a magical bucket of government subsidies, the only way to ease pressure on housing prices is to build.
Boston has been growing for decades, but the pace of growth has surged since 2000. The city hasn’t built enough homes to accommodate all its new residents, and it doesn’t have nearly enough homes to match the speed at which new Bostonians are arriving. The presence of a Whole Foods grocery store doesn’t alter this equation one bit. Refusing to build new housing will push housing prices out of most people’s reach, regardless of whether the guy down the street sells organic soup.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.